Monday, November 5, 2012

City of Memphis & MPD Continue Trying to Avoid Eye Contact With Their Responsibilities

Saw this report on Channel 5 tonight.  According to the report, Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham (God Bless Him, I have to look up his name Every Time . . .) has told the County Commission that "it will cost nearly $6 million for the 2013-2014 school year" to provide safety and security services in the merged Shelby County Schools.  Apparently, Sheriff Oldham estimates that he'll need to hire an additional 35 deputies, at a cost of $4 million per year.

All of this makes it sound like the story is that the Sheriff will be doing some hiring, and will need some additional funding to make that happen.

This reporting misses the real story.  The background to the real story is that the Memphis Police Department will no longer be providing any security services in schools within Memphis city limits.  This seems to be a unilateral decision made by Director of Police Toney Armstong (who I never have to google) with the full support of Mayor Wharton and his administration.  The real story is that this unilateral decision would make Memphis the only municipality with a police department that would fail to provide safety and security services in schools within its borders.

Piecing together the TPC minutes and the BCG presentations, it's clear that MPD was not part of the discussion.  There were statements early on that MPD planned to "discontinue its service" as of the merger - both School Resource Officers and Crossing Guards.  No matter that Bartlett PD, Germantown PD, Collierville PD, and Millington PD all provide these services to schools within their borders at no charge to SCS.

Admittedly, MCS's contribution to MPD for its safety and security services ($1M/year) did not begin to cover the costs incurred by the department.  Similarly, SCS's contribution to SCSO ($200K/year) was not anywhere near full compensation to the Sheriff for the services provided in schools those cities that do not have their own police departments (Arlington and Lakeland) as well as those schools in unincorporated areas.  The balance of the cost of those services were covered by the agencies, essentially as a "gift in kind" to the school districts.

Especially since the other cities are planning to continue safety and security services in their schools, it should be embarassing to Memphis that MPD is walking away from this very important service that it has been performing (quite well, I might add) for decades.

The TPC punted on this one, mainly in deference to Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.  There is continuing pushback in the community regarding Superintendent Kriner Cash's implementation of a school district security force.  At least some of that pushback is related to Dr. Cash's use of a "driver" - which I believed to be an urban legend until these allegations popped up.  It is, admittedly, expensive to the school district to have its own security force - primarily because this is a service that historically came from another budget.  However, in terms of overall expenditures of taxpayer money, security - as it turns out - is much cheaper than law enforcement.  The TPC found that sheriff's deputies, on average, make about $17,000/year more than security officers.  Here is the three-page Safety & Security section from the TPC's Plan.

The Channel 5 story does not explain how well the discussions between the Shelby County School Board and the Sheriff are going.  In fact, this particular story makes it sound like the Sheriff has had to come up with a plan on his own.  I classify it as "likely" that the School Board has not given any guidance to the Sheriff regarding its own plans regarding safety and security in schools, but it does not seem to me that they plan on laying off the MCS and SCS security forces.  The "blended plan" - as it currently exists in MCS (and to a more limited extent in SCS), and as recommended by the TPC - seems likely to exist in the merged district, but I simply don't see that reflected in the Sheriff's current work.

It's also unusual that the County Commission is involved at this stage.  Not only does it seem premature on Sheriff Oldham's part to ask for such a significant budget increase before the School Board figures out how it intends to proceed - but it also seems strange that the County Commission would consider it within its purview to consider outsourcing school security altogether.  Without direction from the (as yet unnamed) Superintendent, or the School Board, but with existing policies and staff in place, it seems to me that the County Commission may also be premature.  It doesn't seem possible that the County Commission thinks that it would fund school security separately to an outsourced vendor, and pay for it independently of the district budget.  Very strange.

So there's a lot that's odd about this whole discussion at this stage.  And so far, Director Armstrong, Mayor Wharton, the County Commission, and Sheriff Oldham (and by extension Mayor Luttrell?) all seem to be on board with MPD's decision to get out of the schools business.  I understand that there are a lot of financial and political considerations to be taken into account.

This would constitute a significant expansion of the Sheriff's Department.  This would also constitute a major expansion of the Sheriff's presence within Memphis borders.  Why hello, Jurisdictional Problems.

There also needs to be a discussion about whether we really want an expansion of law enforcement in schools.  There is plenty of wrongdoing that occurs in schools that rises to the level of criminal activity, but that is appropriately dealt with by school administrators.  There was some discussion by the TPC about who law enforcement reports to when it functions within schools.  A concern raised repeatedly was that deputies or police officers report to their boss, not to the principals.  Where principals can appropriately handle discipline issues, it is excessive for a Sheriff's Deputy to be able to override that decision by exercising his or her arrest powers - the criminal justice system, of course, being a much more expensive (to taxpayers and to the perpetrator) method of dealing with school discipline issues.  Given the local Juvenile Court's inability to stay within constitutional limits and off of the Department of Justice's radar, there is a separate discussion about the impact of criminalization of school discipline that must take place before we go too much further down this road.

All of that said, MCS may be closing its doors, but there will still be public schools in Memphis.  Memphis still has some obligation to those schools and the children in them.  Particularly because safety and security services will continue to be provided - gratis - by other municipal police departments, MPD should not be allowed to walk away from the schools within Memphis city limits.  It seems to me that it would be in MPD's interest to maintain the ongoing relationships with (soon-to-be former MCS) students, in neighborhood schools in Memphis neighborhoods - just in terms of neighborhood relations.  A strong presence in and around schools goes a long way to keeping a law enforcement finger on the pulse in literally every Memphis neighborhood.  I just can't see walking away from that.

Seems to me to be just another political play.  MPD, with its somewhat reduced workload, isn't considering any corresponding reduction in force, is it?  Will the City of Memphis take the opportunity to further reduce the MPD budget?  I think that it's part of the general getting-out-of-Dodge approach that the city has taken since the surrender of the charter, but I don't think MPD or the City of Memphis is really interested in any examination of possible unintended consequences.

It's not responsible, I'm not sure it's ethical, it's not the right thing to do, it's against their own interests, and it's a self-created instance where Memphis (once again) suffers in the comparison to its Shelby County neighbors.  Very disappointing.

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